Sexual assault miseducation: The daunting path to changing campus culture

Text from an art installation by Lark Buckingham in the window of Berkeley Center for New Media Commons at 340 Moffitt Hall.
Michael Drummond /Senior Staff
Text from an art installation by Lark Buckingham in the window of Berkeley Center for New Media Commons at 340 Moffitt Hall.

“If some guy is on top of you, jackhammering you, you can say no,” a UC Berkeley LEAD Center staff member announced into the microphone.

These words hung stagnant in the air as hundreds of young women sat in the seats of a mandatory sexual assault education presentation hosted by the LEAD Center’s Fraternity & Sorority Advising and Leadership Development team this September.

The presentation, titled “New Member Academy,” was part of a mandatory orientation for all students who had recently joined UC Berkeley’s 2015-16 Panhellenic community as new sorority members.

I am one of these students. When the meeting began in a lecture room in Dwinelle Hall, I sat next to my peers, shoulder to shoulder. I had already finished my first year at UC Berkeley, but many women in the room were freshmen.

Of 483 collegiate women surveyed for a study published this May by the Journal of Adolescent Health, 18.6 percent reported experiencing instances of attempted or completed rape within 12 months of starting college.

“You all know that girl,” said Dylan Howser, the LEAD Center staff member who led the presentation, while gesturing the top of his head. “You know, the one that’s too drunk and has puke in her hair?”

Student after student rose from their seat to leave the auditorium.

At the end of the presentation, I was directed along with the other women who remained in the lecture hall toward the stage, where piles of pens and blank sign-in sheets sat awaiting the signatures that would prove our attendance.

I remember the girl sitting next to me. She pulled her bag off the floor and looked at me, her face twisted. I couldn’t tell if she was heated or just in shock.

Before I could ask, the silence was broken as the room erupted with hundreds of voices. We stood, stretched, signed and left, leaving little in the room but our names in blue ink.

“All of his sexual jokes about rape culture made me and the girls around me very uncomfortable,” said freshman Prina Randhawa. “He said that we would remember this presentation because he’s making it interesting and engaging, however, it was more of an upsetting presentation, which in turn makes us remember it in a negative way.”

Less than 24 hours after the New Member Academy, an apology email was sent by Brandon Tsubaki, an associate director for LEAD.

“Unfortunately, we fell short, and for that I would like to apologize,” Tsubaki wrote. “We have recognized that several members were impacted by the language and imagery our team presented, triggering unintentional feelings and emotions.”

The email provided contact information for the Counseling and Psychological Services at the Tang Center, UC Berkeley’s health center, which provides medical and mental health services to students.

The LEAD center’s training and programs pertaining to sexual assault and sexual violence are, by and large, a response to a recommendation administered to the campus by the California State Auditor following a string of alleged mishandlings of sexual assault cases at UC Berkeley and many other universities in the past few years.

A federal Clery Act complaint was filed by nine UC Berkeley students in May 2013, alleging that UC Berkeley underreported incidents of sexual violence on campus. . Three months later, the state auditor approved the investigation of some California universities, including UC Berkeley.

The findings, released in 2014, determined that UC Berkeley and the other universities audited “must do more to properly educate students on sexual harassment and sexual violence” and recommended the campus provide supplemental annual training to specific student groups, such as athletes, the Greek community and other student organizations at risk.

UC Berkeley’s New Member Academy was the first of its kind, according to Ariana Naaseh, president of the Panhellenic Council. It seemed to be a long-awaited step in the right direction. The student feedback received after the presentation, however, seemed to prove otherwise.

“We received responses from students present that there were inappropriate comments made during the Panhellenic New Member Academy. Based on what was reported, these statements did not align with the serious nature of the subject,” Jamie Riley, director of the LEAD Center, said in an email. “We were deeply concerned by this incident, and have been strategizing how to move forward.”

This incident and its fallout is indicative of what may be the anti-sexual assault movement’s next big challenge: How to effectively pursue education and raise awareness on such a charged topic. The reality of sexual assault has come to the forefront of national discussion and it’s clear that it’s not going anywhere. Universities all over the country are being pushed to reevaluate how they handle cases of sexual assault and how they treat survivors. Hand in hand with these efforts is another pertinent question: How can campuses prevent these incidents from occurring in the first place?

“The cultural piece is the biggest hurdle we’re working on.” said UC Berkeley alumna Sofie Karasek, cofounder of the nonprofit organization End Rape on Campus and one of nine women who filed a complaint against UC Berkeley. She said that transforming campus culture surrounding sexual assault is a two-part process: survivor support and an educated culture.

Like Karasek, most advocates point to campus culture as the key to shifting the way students talk about and address the issue of sexual assault. Preventative training and proactive workshops, many say, are not just helpful but necessary to fostering this change.

Many of UC Berkeley’s students and organizations have begun this work internally. The Berkeley Student Cooperative, for example, which provides housing to more than a thousand students, often hosts peer-to-peer consent talks. Consent talks are given by a members of co-ops, said Ally Mason, a resident of Berkeley Student Cooperative housing. She said that anyone who wants to can be trained to give these talks.

“We have consent talks before every party, (and) any guest that comes in our home has to be given a consent talk before any event we have.” Mason said. “I think the co-ops are at the front of the Berkeley community in regards to consent and sexual assault.”

This form of peer-led preventative education is not unique to the student cooperative system. Last spring, members of UC Berkeley’s Interfraternity and Panhellenic councils made sexual assault education mandatory, according to Meghan Warner, a student representative on the UC task force. These trainings primarily consist of peer-to-peer presentations, Naaseh said. Training sessions are typically hosted by peer members of Greeks Against Sexual Assault and the Gender and Equity Resource Center, or GenEq.

“This initiative was student led, in that students understood the changing campus climate and recognized a need for change and education,” Naaseh said in an email.

Monique Candiff, a student at UC Berkeley who has been hosting sexual assault workshops through GenEq since last fall, said the normalization of consent relies heavily on the education model, and that peer education has allowed for more accessibility to students.

“It was all coming from adults. That’s valid and they are all trained professionals,” Candiff said. “But adults cannot talk to college students in a way that’s accessible to college students.”

Although peer-led education models seem to be successful, Warner thinks that cultural reform calls for a multi-faceted solution. In addition to student responsibility, she said university employees must shift how they currently approach the topic.

“University employees (need) to change how they’re speaking about sexual violence and trauma and keeping students safe, and take more of a trauma-centered approach,” Warner said. “And I think that’s still an ongoing effort.”

The University of California is currently working on improving preventative education across the system. Sheryl Vacca, the University of California Office of the President’s chief compliance and audit officer, announced in September that the university will be implementing a framework for sexual assault education.

“One of the main components of what the task force is doing is trying to establish some consistency across the whole system.” said Kate Moser, a UCOP spokesperson.

The plan consists of six concepts that form a baseline curriculum for sexual assault education given to incoming students, including definitions of violence, bystander intervention and reporting rights and options. The framework will be adopted this January, while implementation and delivery will be left to individual campuses.

“The concerted national efforts have brought us to a watershed moment.” said Janina Montero, vice chancellor for student affairs of UCLA, at the meeting where the plan was introduced. She said the current local and national context of the issue provides the task force with a “real opportunity for culture change” through transforming “the quality and intensity of the educational agenda.”

As efforts at cultural reform begin to take footing within universities across the nation, it is clear that important progress is being made. The fact that mandatory sexual assault and consent workshops even exist, in comparison to recent years, is a monumental success on its own.

Yet the implementation of preventative education is far more complicated than simply making resources available. It is becoming increasingly clear that the path toward shifting campus culture surrounding sexual assault is not simply lined with policy reform and content requirements.

Many advocates stress the importance of peer-to-peer delivery of education, in addition to meaningful policy. Many warn that there is no chance for cultural transformation without it.

Is the content offered in the UC’s most recent plan to counteract sexual assault a step in the right direction? Absolutely. But what worries me is this idea of checking off boxes. The blue ink on paper. The notion that those who are working on the issue are solely motivated by compliance.

Policies alone won’t establish a new culture. We need voices of students that have learned from experience and care deeply about their communities, voices that go beyond mere compliance. These voices must be utilized to spark genuine change.